Music year-end lists have a certain sameness. Pick an indie genius, pick a hip-hop oddball, add rock and soul true believers, stir and rank. Here’s Courtney Barnett, there’s the Weeknd, over to the side is Jason Isbell, and maybe throw in Kamasi Washington for variety. Everybody, it seems, loves the same things, just in a slightly different order.
I like Kendrick Lamar and Björk too, just like everyone else. But at the end of the year, it seems worth taking a moment to celebrate some music that didn’t happen to get a major label – or any label – release, that doesn’t happen to fit into a critically validated genre or come from a region with firmly established music credentials. So here’s is a ranked list of some of the best music of 2015, designed to stomp through those other best-of lists, trailing broken bits, scandalized dissent and maybe a little bit of yuletide joy.
10. Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart — Suuns and Jerusalem in My Heart (Secretly Canadian) Suuns make post-Sonic Youth art rock; JIMH creates multimedia soundscapes inspired by Radwan Ghazi Moumneh’s Lebanese heritage. The two Montreal bands’ collaboration is something else entirely. Separate traditions of transcendent droning wrap around each other, alternately ping ponging back and forth and sublimely entwining. “Metal” turns fuzz guitar into a call to prayer, or vice versa, while “Gazelles in Flight” uses modern classical composition, a la Steve Reich, to add a chittering, mysterious, alienating edge, through which Eastern drones wander like a familiar tourist. Separately, Suuns and JIMH can each sound a bit predictable; together, though, they sound like nothing else, or everything else, on earth.
9. North Carolina Shepherd Dog — Mugen Hoso (Mugen Hoso) Rock in the U.S. is semi-comatose, if not deceased, but two-piece retro-glam goofballs Mugen Hoso prove that it’s alive and well in Japan. “It’s Only Rock and Roll” divvies up the Rolling Stone tune, complete with severed Chuck Berry solo, before throwing in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and general theatrical badass thrashing. Nonsensical, ridiculous and cool as shit, singing tributes to shepherd dogs and the Bay City Rollers alike, Mugen Hoso’s concise EP keeps the gloriously bloated ‘70s alive.
8. Niños Heroes — Negro Leo (Quintavant) The title of Rio de Janeiro performer Negro Leo’s Niños Heroes nicely captures the album’s cracked naïf swagger. The 22 songs mostly clock in at less than two minutes apiece, each a little fragment of sax/guitar/bass/drums/keyboard-assembled fuzak funk. Leo’s half satirical, half sincere, all warped lyrics sway every which way: “Your neighborhood sucks!” he declaims at one moment, and then half sings half moans, “love is a busy night” the next as strummed romantic Tropicalismo is overtaken by spitting feedback and what sounds like a honking kazoo. Niños Heroes is both incredibly ambitious and guaranteed to give you a fit of the giggles.
7. A Rush — Jordannah Elizabeth (The Process Records) Jordannah Elizabeth has the magical ability to make all of American music seem like it belongs to a single genre. Folk, R&B, blues, indie rock, and jazz all slide into one, soulful strum. It’s cemented by her amazing, gospel tinged singing, filled with mutters, whoops, half hollers and trills. “14 Minus 13” sounds like Nina Simone moaning over churning, spacious electronica, while “Stop Breaking,” with violin and little-boy vocals from Matt Fowle, comes across like a dream duet between Odetta and Nick Drake. A Rush isn’t quite as perfect as Elizabeth’s Bring to the Table, my favorite album from last year, but it’s still phenomenal.
6. Return of 13 Hedgehogs (Mxbx Singles 2000-2009) — Melt Banana (A-Zap Records) Japanese no-wave avant hardcore wackos Melt Banana have been around for more than two decades now, but age hasn’t made them any less manically feral. This collection of non-album singles from the 2000s finds singer Yasuko Onuki shrieking like a small mammal pouring amphetamines into its gullet, while Ichirou Agata plays punk riffs stunned by repeated blows to the head. A sped-up cover of Toots and the Maytals’ “Monkey Man” is a hysterical (in various senses) high point. Their later period represented here includes more keyboard electronica squiggles and bleeps to add to the chaos… but they never lose those head-banging-in-a-wind-tunnel hooks.
5. VALIS — .Mastery (The Flenser) Imagine Ornette Coleman dismembering a pitful of slavering shoggoths with a jackhammer, and you’ll get a sense of Mastery’s insane, assaultive masterpiece. Bay area multi-instrumentalist Ephemeral Domignostika builds his album out of short, clashing riffs and brutalized blast beats. It ends up being as much free jazz chaos as black metal shriek, with a few lyrical, demi-classical moments thrown in to soften you up for the next bludgeoning. After the initial shock, the listening experience is surprisingly immersive, and even (intentionally, given the title’s reference to Philip K. Dick) spiritual. This is an album designed to flay your ego from your bones.
4. Sundial — Jonny Faith (Tru Thoughts Records) Melbourne electronica DJ Jonny Faith doesn’t bend genres or head for the avant garde like some folks on this list. This isn’t music to startle, but to sink into like a warm bath. As you’d expect from a working DJ, the song transitions are often pleasures in themselves, like the fade-out of the dreamy “Sundial” blurring into the fade in of the dreamy, but funkier “Neon.” One mellow, bright psychedelic melody flows into another for forty-five minutes of bliss, whether chemically assisted or prompted solely by the music itself.
3. Blackheart — Dawn Richard (Our Dawn Entertainment)
Dawn Richard has made the unlikely transition from reality show girl-group fashion plate to oddball eccentric genius. The best part is that Blackheart really doesn’t sound all that far afield from her (wonderful) work with Danity Kane Former group member Audnrea Fimbres even comes onboard for the ecstatic “Phoenix,” adding massive schlock vocal power to Richard’s layers of multi-track harmonizing and Caribbean-tinged beats. In a just world this, and the album as a whole, would have been a titanic radio hit. Instead, Richard just has to settle for making one of the best albums of the year. She’s probably okay with that; as she says on the piano driven, show stopping closer “The Deep”, “I took it to the deep/because my heart doesn’t swim in shallow creeks.” Take that, Adele.
2. Painlust — Sewer Goddess (Malignant Records) Sewer Goddess has to be one of the greatest metal band names ever, and Baltimore-based Kristen Rose lives up to the title. She’s got the most terrifying recorded scream since Roger Waters, and she deploys it mercilessly. Painlust sounds like witches setting loose demons in a decaying Blade Runner future, with doom-laden ambient industrial bots opening fanged maws to castrate the heretics. The EP is only six tracks long, but it’s still the most unremittingly evil album of the year — one extended, tortured scream, hag’s talons being sharpened on metal in preparation for tearing out your bits.
1. Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints — RP Boo (Planet Mu) One of the founders of Chicago footwork, RP Boo (Kavain Space) isn’t as well known as Traxman or DJ Rashad, both of whom are more eclectic in influence. But what it lacks in crossover appeal, Boo’s bare bones approach makes up in mesmerizing intensity. His tracks are more repetitive repetitive than even the great James Brown, single loops and samples played over and over and over as beats drop on and on —and then, gloriously, stutter and switch. You’d think you’d need to have two snapped knees to dance to this—and yet it’s music meant for dancing. Sexless and sexy, abstractly impermeable and determinedly populist, Boo’s endlessly iterating beat-battered tracks are love letters to both his community and the inside of his own skull. He’s one of our least celebrated national treasures.
NB: Getting the list down to 10 was not easy; I had to drop South Africa shaangan electro producer Nozinja’s Nozinja Lodge, Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal’s kora/cello duets on Musique Du Nuit, doom/drone duo Insect Ark’s Portal/Well…. The world’s too big for any one person to find every best—all the more reason for the occasional list with different loves, and a different canon.